ExtremeTech: DriveSavers Demonstrates Extreme Data Recovery
By Neil J. Rubenking, PCMag, 3/10/10
You’ve heard the story: distraught parents rush back into a burning house to save their photo albums. Smart? Probably not, but those memories are priceless. When the photo albums and video collections live on your computer’s hard drive, it’s a different story. You can’t run in and rescue them from a hard drive crash. Well, you can’t—but DriveSavers can. My wife and I recently had an opportunity to tour DriveSavers headquarters in Marin County, and we came away thoroughly impressed.
Testimonials and Examples
From the outside, DriveSavers looks like any other office-park building: a nondescript three-story structure off Highway 101 and not far from San Pablo Bay. The company started small, gradually expanding until it filled the whole building.
In the reception area we couldn’t help but notice dozens of signed photos on the wall—testimonials from clients grateful to DriveSavers for recovering their data. Among these were Conan O’Brien, Danny Elfman, Willie Nelson, Sean Connery, Matt Groening, and many more. Yes, even the rich and famous suffer data loss.
Moving past the photos we encountered an alcove flagged as the “Museum of Disk-Asters“, which immortalizes some of the company’s successes. Most prominent was an old-fashioned desktop PC box rescued from fire, the monitor on top reduced to a few unrecognizable fragments. Our DriveSavers tour guide Mark Baird had pulled out the hard drive from the wreckage, and he confirmed that its data had indeed been recovered successfully. He noted that drives are more often damaged by the water used to put out a fire than by the fire itself. The one failure in the museum? A pile of 3.5″ diskettes melted into slag.
On to the Clean Room
Most of the drives that come to DriveSavers have something physically wrong with them. Technicians need to open them up for diagnosis and repair, and the only place to do that is a clean room. We made our way up to the repair center and entered the Level 100,000 clean room, the first in a series of increasing clean clean rooms.
Here Pamela Rainger, Purchasing Manager, holds court over endless racks of verified fully functional hard drives that serve as “organ donors” for sick drives. Her collection includes samples from every vendor, every firmware revision, and every partnership. When a drive comes in for repair it may well need parts, and DriveSavers only uses parts from an identical drive.
The Level 100,000 clean room also serves as a robing room. Before going any further, Janet and I had to don all-encompassing disposable “bunny suits.” The technicians use more durable permanent suits that they say are also more comfortable, but, even so, I don’t envy them working in suit, face-mask, and gloves all day.
Any necessary chip-level soldering and repair happens in the Level 10,000 clean room. Clean room Manager Jon Lee demonstrated a combination microscope and soldering device with the capability to remove and replace chips from a drive’s circuit board, correctly reconnecting hundreds of pins.
Noise from the HEPA filter fans started to get annoying in the Level 1,000 room, but you can’t have a clean room without filtered air. Here technicians hook up problem drives by the dozens to a wide variety of diagnostic tools, most of them proprietary. And in the inner sanctum, the Level 100 clean room, we saw hard drive platters spinning away completely uncovered. DriveSavers has agreements with all the hard drive makers allowing them to open the drive without voiding its warranty. Don’t try that at home—anywhere but a clean room has contaminants in the air that would quickly ensure the drive’s demise.
I’m not sure how long we spent in the clean room, but the confining suits and noisy fans made it seem like ages. On the way out we noticed stacks and stacks of incoming “patients” awaiting the ministrations of the DriveSavers diagnostic and micro-surgery team.
As we worked our way out of the clean room Baird explained that physical repair is only the first step in data recovery. As soon as the technicians can get the drive working they record a full drive image, or as full an image as the damage permits. This image goes to another set of technicians who work on logical data recovery.
The PC and Mac logical recovery labs sit at opposite ends of the building, though Baird assured me they get along just fine. We hit the PC group first. Rian Piccolo, PC-side manager and encryption expert, explained that modern techniques of full-disk encryption have seriously changed the nature of data recovery. The client may choose to have DriveSavers recover the encrypted drive byte for byte onto identical hardware and stop there. Or they may supply a decryption key so the technicians can decrypt the recovered drive, perform any necessary logical data recovery, and then re-encrypt the drive. DriveSavers has more security certifications than I ever knew existed; even government agencies trust them to decrypt, fix, and re-encrypt.
In this lab I learned that the folks at DriveSavers can also recover just about any kind of removable media. They have working readers for every storage medium you can imagine—old Iomega Bernoulli Boxes, Jaz disks, SparQ disks, you name it. If you find a cache of old media in the attic, DriveSavers probably has the reader for it.
Technicians on the Mac side also recover data for Linux and other operating systems, as well as working on all kinds of RAID arrays. They even extract data from damaged iPhones and similar devices. Mac Engineering Director Mike Cobb extolled the super-fast network that lets them quickly copy the same drive image to multiple drives and run multiple recovery tools simultaneously.
In the Mac lab I discovered compelling evidence that clean room protocols are not required for logical recovery when Chief Morale Officer Bronson toddled out from his bed under the bench to give us a sniff and a grin. (I don’t think they make bulldog-sized bunny suits).
Technical and Emotional Support
We finished our tour in the customer support department. People all over the world call the DriveSavers toll-free lines to find out whether their data can be saved. The support agents offer advice (starting with “Don’t try to recover it yourself!”) and work with the caller to decide on a course of action. Losing data can be emotionally devastating in some cases, so if necessary agents can refer calls to Kelly Chessen, the company’s official Data Crisis Counselor. With years of real-world crisis counseling Chessen is uniquely qualified to talk down distraught callers.
I Was Wrong!
In the course of our tour, I learned that a couple of “facts” I had long believed about data recovery were just wrong. For years I’ve known that it’s theoretically possible to recover data even after it’s been overwritten by using high-end forensic tools. Further, the laws of physics decree that it’s impossible to repeat this recovery process more than seven times, so overwriting data seven times will definitely preclude any recovery.
In the real world, this high-falutin’ theory is true but irrelevant. A single properly executed overwrite is sufficient to wipe out data beyond any reasonable expectation of recovery. The equipment to analyze a drive and recover overwritten data would cost millions, and, as a DriveSavers technician put it, might recover nothing but the letter “a.” DriveSavers doesn’t claim to recover overwritten data, but does point out that what customers think has been overwritten often isn’t.
I also “knew” that the DriveSavers service is for the rich and famous, or for big companies recovering mission-critical data. After all, who would pay a thousand dollars or more just to find out whether recovery is possible? Current policies at DriveSavers couldn’t be more different. Not only will the company take a look without any charge, but it will send the consumer a prepaid FedEx mailer for sending the drive in for testing. After the technicians determine what degree of recovery is possible, customer service calls back with the price and the customer can decide how to proceed. That’s service!
The DriveSavers team members are the first to admit that thorough and verified backup systems would eliminate the need for their service. Human nature being what it is, I don’t think they’re in any danger. As a public service, they’ve created a small Web-based application (also available as an iPhone app) that demonstrates how a hard drive works, and how it can fail.
Found at www.drivesavers.com/hard_drive_crash_simulator, the applet simulates a number of different hard drive failure modes including head crash, surface contamination, chip failure and more. This little app is both amusing and informative. When you’re done crashing the virtual disk you can click for a virtual cleanroom tour, and you won’t even have to dress funny.
There are any number of services that offer to recover your data. But one thing’s for sure: very few of them can physically repair the drive in a Certified ISO 5 (Class-100) clean room, and very few have undergone the SAS 70 Type II security audit that DriveSavers has. A carry-in mom-and-pop shop may be able to perform simple data recovery, but you’ll want high-end capabilities for that sensitive and irreplaceable data.
Michele Taylor, director of communications at DriveSavers, has been trying to get me out for a tour ever since the company completed its new full-scale clean room. I’m certainly glad I finally took the opportunity. And having seen their team of dedicated technicians at work I have no doubt that if the data can be saved, they can save it.
Read the Original Article at Extreme Tech.